Category Archives: God’s voice

the sermon that was never heard…

I had a dream last night. So strong in its witness, I needed to “get it down” on paper this morning. Perhaps in doing so, it will get down to a deeper place inside of me so that I might more fully live it outside of me.

The sermon that was never heard.

Allow me to explain. In May of 2016 my father was scheduled to preach at the Garner UMC. There was nothing particularly unusual about this event. Dad was often called upon to “fill the pulpit” on occasions when the pastor wasn’t available. As a professor of preaching at Asbury Seminary for over thirty years, and as a pastor of several congregations in the last fifty years, my dad has always been a natural choice for such occasions. His spiritual journey, as well as his giftedness in and eloquence for telling a story, have allowed him notable stages from which to deliver God’s message. But no stage was more glorious and important to my father than one holding a wooden pulpit overlooking an audience of Sunday morning seekers. Accordingly, dad rarely refused an opportunity to fill a pulpit.

I had planned to make the two hour trip to Garner to hear my father speak that Sunday. My mother texted me early in the morning to tell me not to come, that dad wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to preach. Later that day, when pressed for more details, dad revealed that he was having trouble reading his sermon notes, that his thoughts were jumbled up inside of him. And while he didn’t have any manifestations of a physical illness, he knew something was wrong. So did we. Thus began the unraveling of the diagnosable mystery known as a stroke.

For the last nineteen months, we’ve walked with dad through this period of redirection. The adjustments have been numerous. And while dad’s aphasia has altered his daily routine, it hasn’t changed his heart or his passion for telling the story. Certainly, the “stage” has changed; they’re smaller now, more intimate. His words are fewer and, sometimes, aren’t delivered as eloquently as he would like. But the warmth is there, the smile, the laughter, the love … always the love from dad. And through it all, we’re all learning to make peace with…

The sermon that was never heard.

The words that were never spoken that Sunday morning. The “text” that (some would say) would be my father’s final declaration from the pulpit. And this morning, after tossing and tumbling all night long, after mulling over what my father’s final benediction might have been from the pulpit that morning in Garner, I have decided that God is still writing that sermon. That after nineteen months of altered steps and interrupted dialogue, the sermon that was never heard is still preaching its witness.

And therein, folks, lives and breathes the greatest story ever told. When the curtains are drawn, the script is lost, when the words won’t come, and the audience has departed, what remains is the sacred echo – the deafening whispers of the sermon that was never heard.  

Like my father, perhaps even like you, I have a few more stories I’d like to share, a few more moments of dialogue I’d like to give to the world. But I am no longer convinced that these are the “sermons” that God will most thoroughly use to live and give his witness. What I am growing convinced of, however, is that…

Not every sermon needs a stage.

Not every manuscript needs eloquence.

Not every word needs to be spoken.

Instead, our “sermons” just need to be lived in the shadow of Almighty God. With warmth. With smiles. With laughter. With love … always the love.

If we can get to that place of settled peace, friends, then the sermon that was never heard surely will be boldly proclaimed with a depth and with a clarity that may not come otherwise. So…

Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me how to live with an unwritten, unspoken, and unfinished script.

And thank you, God, for making it count eternally. As always, 

Peace for the journey,

on cleaning out your culvert…

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” –Proverbs 4:23

It’s been four months since Hurricane Matthew swept through our little neck of the woods. Beyond losing our power for a few days, there has been no lasting, negative impact to my family. There has been, however, a niggling reminder of its existence each time I take a walk around my neighborhood.

There are several man-made ponds in our community, connected by culverts that keep the water freely flowing amongst them. Since the hurricane, one of the culverts has been muddied up and blocked by debris. The city maintenance crew shows up now and again to poke a stick at it, but the flow of water has mostly stopped between the ponds. Accordingly, the water has grown stagnant and murky.

Something tells me it’s going to take more than a poke to get the water flowing again. It’s going to take some getting down and some getting dirty, some hands on, digging in the mud to clean out and clear up the mess that Hurricane Matthew left behind.

As it goes with the culvert in my neighborhood, so it goes with my heart.

Every now and again, a hurricane blows in and around my spirit, muddying it up with debris. The water flowing in and out of my heart gets plugged up by the ravages of the storm. An occasional poke and prod of faith does precious little to release the debris clogging up my veins. A poke and prod may temporarily bring some relief, but eventually, I have to be willing to do more in order to remove the obstruction. I have to dig a little deeper, get my hands a little muddier, so that I might, once again, feel and know the free flow of water in and around my spirit.

What does that look like practically speaking?

Well, for me it begins with the wisdom of King Solomon. I must take better care of my heart, both in feeding it and guarding it. I’ve not been very good at my feeding and guarding in recent days. Instead, I’ve been stoking the fires of my faith with an occasional poke and prod of Jesus. Accordingly, my heart feels stagnant … muddy … full of the world and its rubble rather than full of something better, something cleaner, something freer. Someone finer.

The good news? I know how to unclog the drain to my heart.

I must eliminate the debris, even if it means my getting deep into the water to do so.

With God’s help to guide me…

• I will guard my heart most fiercely in the days to come.
• I will diligently feed my soul with truth (God’s Word), not lies.
• I will live in a posture of quietness before the Lord so that I might most clearly hear from his heart.
• I will yield to sacred road blocks, and I will merge when the lane is offered.
• I will “circle the wagons” as it pertains to those who are allowed to speak into my life.
• I will reserve the greater portion of my emotional and physical energy for my family, my friends, and my students.
• I will keep my eyes fixed on the finish line instead of the cheering (and sometimes jeering) of the mob on the sidelines.
• I will start and end my day with Jesus and offer up ten thousand prayers in between.
• And I will remember that all of my “wills” are weakened if not tethered tightly to the pull and prod of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps today, like me, your heart’s been clogged up with the debris of a recent hurricane. I don’t know if anyone’s come around to take a look at your mess yet, but if you’re reading this, maybe you could consider this a prod toward cleaning up your culvert? You might get a little dirty in the process, but once you’re free from the junk, the flow of water between your heart and God’s will begin again.

Be well, friends. Live well. Guard your heart above all else. Truly, God means for it to be the wellspring of life eternal. As always…

Peace for the journey,

the song of the brook …

My students and I have just finished reading Song of the Brook by Matlida Nordtvedt. As literary prose goes, it doesn’t measure up to the classics, but it does serve a purpose in our classroom. It’s one book in a continuing series of books presented annually to students who use the Abeka curriculum; they seem to enjoy keeping up with the Johnson family from year to year.

The main character of the story is Hilda, a young girl from Bellingham, Washington, who is learning to live with change: a move to a new community, the disappointment with that community, discord amongst extended family members, bullying on the playground, overcoming insecurities, and the like. Despite the chaos in Hilda’s new life, she finds solace in an unexpected place – the babbling brook running beside her dilapidated house. At night, she sits next to the open, bedroom window and listens as the brook “sings” her a song. Repeatedly throughout the story, the brook impresses upon Hilda’s heart various phrases to soothe (and sometimes to meddle with) the aches within her heart. Her brookside meditations are Hilda’s way of spending time with God and hearing his voice therein.

Even though Hilda’s story is set in time nearly 100 years ago, the problems she faces back then are not unlike the problems we face today. Who of us haven’t known the ache of relocation, the tears of disappointment, the fracture of beloved relationships, the taunts of a bully, and the crippling of insecurity? Today’s troubles aren’t much different from yesterday’s harms; the scenery simply has changed.

Unlike Hilda, I don’t have the beauty of a singing brook running by and next to the parsonage in Laurinburg, NC. I don’t raise my windows in the evening for fear of unwanted critters (or humans) disrupting my night’s slumber. The sounds of my city at night are no match for the idyllic evening lullabies of the countryside, those wide-open spaces that seem to more easily host the voice of the Creator.

Still and yet, I hear the Father’s voice. His words speak to me as I take the time to listen in, to open up the window of my soul and to meditate upon the scriptures he has written to me in his holy Word. Sometimes God’s melody soothes the aches within; sometimes his refrain meddles with my will. At all times, his song is truthful. God cannot lie; neither will he sing a song over me that will lead me down a wayward path. Instead, his song … his words are for me, for my good and, most importantly, for his kingdom good.

Lately, his holy refrain has been crystal clear:

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

Over and over again, for the past several weeks, these words have cycled repeatedly throughout my mind, like the lyrics of a song you just can’t shake.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

In living out this obedience from John 13, there are always ample challenges. Stinky feet aren’t my preference. It’s easier to touch cleanliness than dirtiness. It’s less problematic to embrace the feet of a friend than it is to embrace the feet of a betrayer. Even so, the Father sings…

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

I don’t know what this will look like for me in the days to come, how this yielding will play itself out. But of this I am certain … it will play itself out. Whether at school, at church, at home, and maybe even at Wal-Mart, stinky feet are everywhere – walking in front of me, behind me, next to me, over me, and, yes, sometimes within me. We all get our feet dirty from time to time. The Father’s basin and towel are equal to the cleansing task, yet another undeserved grace from his heart to ours that allows us to get clean and then to offer that same cleansing to others.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

The window of my soul is open. The song of the brook is singing. Even so, Father, I am listening.

As you have done for me, Lord, help me to do so for others. Amen.

 

The Road Home ~ a Christmas Miracle

We have an annual tradition of opening up our Christmas gifts to one another at the same time … over the phone. She lives in northern Ohio. I live in eastern NC. We’ve been friends for over twenty years, and every time we talk or get together, it’s as if we’ve never been apart. Yesterday was no different.

Her package arrived at my doorstep with the afternoon post. My gift to her arrived in Ohio earlier in the week. I called her after supper, and the unwrapping began. I went first and was immediately struck by the sentimentality of her gift to me.

(How did she get the artist to paint that picture … the one I took three years ago when I was up for a visit and we went out for a ride through Amish country? Amazing work. She must have paid someone to paint this.)

I voiced my joy and my obvious gratitude for such a sentimental treasure. My friend was perplexed.

“Elaine, I know you like Amish things, and I remember us taking that drive out in Amish country, but there are hundreds of paths and roads with that exact scene. I don’t even remember the picture you took; I just happened upon this man’s shop in Navarre, liked his work, and selected a print I thought you would like. There were dozens and dozens of scenes to choose from, but I kept coming back to this one. It just spoke to me, and I knew it was the one to get for you.”

Coincidence? Never. To prove my point, I scoured through the pictures on my computer and found the one that closely resembled the scene in the painting. I sent it to my friend. She began coming around to my point of view. We discussed the similarities, but it wasn’t until I pointed out the curve of the tree in the front left corner of the picture that I knew we had a match.

What are the odds? Of all the gifts she could have given me this Christmas, she gave me this one. She never made the connection between her gift and the picture I’d taken three years ago. She didn’t need to. God did it for her. God did it for me. Maybe … even God did it for the artist.

After we finished our conversation, I did some research on the painter, Billy Jacobs. He’s a local resident in Navarre, OH, and lives within a couple miles of my friend’s home. His work is stunning. I’m not much into paintings, but his work could easily become my new favorite addiction. While visiting his website, I connected with his facebook page and left him a message about my God-incident. I even posted the original picture I had taken three years ago to his wall. Within an hour, he had responded to my post, confirming what I already suspected and asking me if I remembered the location where that photo was taken. The scene was the inspiration for his artwork, but he’s never been able to find that exact location again in all of his travels throughout Amish country. My friend and I racked our brains, trying to retrace the steps we took back in 2011, and I was able to give Billy a general vicinity of where I think he’ll be able to rediscover … wait for it …

The Road Home.

Yep. That’s the title of his painting. Coincidence? Never.

And so to this Advent season and to my thoughts and my heart that are full tonight of memory, of yearning, of hope, and of expectation for …

the road home.

Isn’t that the Christmas road? Isn’t that the sum-total of the Bethlehem search … the pilgrimage to the manger? A step or two back in time in order to take a step or two forward in faith. To find that which is longed for and that, with the finding, comes fresh inspiration, fresh resolve to keep moving forward in expectation of home.

It’s but a few steps from here. Not as far off as we think. For Billy, his search might lead him down the Jericho Road toward Kidron, OH (the latest, best pinpoint for the location – I’m not kidding …). For me, well, my search will take me a bit further. To the Kidron Valley (the valley on the eastern side of The Old City of Jerusalem and that separates the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives) and beyond. This is where Jesus finished his earthly life; this is the place where he exited earthen sod to be at home with his Father forever.

Jesus Christ. The Road Home. My beginning. My now. My next. He is where I’m headed this Christmas. How grateful I am for the Christmas miracle that found its way to my front porch to lead me to the manger so that I might, once again, behold the Savior in all his glory.

Blessings, friends, as you travel the road to Bethlehem this year. May the miracle of Christmas renew your faith, strengthen your resolve, and quicken your search for the road home. And as always, may God grant you his abiding peace for the journey.

Merry Christmas,

PS: If you have some time, visit Billy’s website and tell me your favorite. As for me, I have my eyes set on A Light in the Stable! (Hint, hint – my Billy Olsen – wouldn’t it look great over our mantle next Christmas?) Also, another interesting detail – my friend’s name is Juanita. Billy Jacob’s mother’s name? Yep. Juanita. Isn’t God cool?

Into the Cloud

I came across a verse this Sabbath afternoon while working my way through HeBrews: a Better Blend. I don’t think my author-friend, Leah, meant for me to park my thoughts at this particular verse for any length of time; nevertheless it parked alongside me, keeping company with my soul for the last several hours.

“The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” –Exodus 20:21

Where God was.

Where was God? In the cloud – shrouded by thick darkness. Moses knew it; the Israelites knew it. Still and yet, they allowed their fear to overrule any measure of faith. Moses? Well, he’d been down that road with God before, back in those beginning days when his fear might have kept him from the greatest faith-adventure of his life. Instead of giving into the fear, Moses approached the darkness—the burning bush, the throne of Pharaoh, the Red Sea. Why?

Because God was in there, in those places of great testing. Moses, better than the Israelites, valued the presence of God and understood that, sometimes, it’s in the darkness where the Light is most radiantly revealed. God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. But in the darkness, when we cannot see clearly for the thick fog surrounding us, God’s light is a holy, welcome resource.

We should not fear the unseen. Just because we cannot see the light doesn’t mean that the light isn’t waiting for us just beyond the veil. Sometimes the way through is clear and obvious. Sometimes, it’s only by taking those initial steps of faith into the cloud that the light will be revealed. Sometimes, it’s our steps forward that bring the sacred flame into focus.

Not long ago, I stepped into the cloud to meet with God. Was I afraid? A little. But like Moses, there was a greater fear that penetrated my heart – The fear of not taking those steps forward. I think that Moses, like me, clearly knew that God had something more for him (beginning at the ripe young age of 80) . . . something beyond the routine of sheep-tending on the plains of Midian. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with sheep-tending. Sheep-tending is a good living unless God wants to move our tending to the other side of the pasture, or in Moses’ case, the other side of the Red Sea.

Every now and again, we have to be willing to let go of good pastureland in order to take hold of God’s Promised Land.

And so, I said “yes” to God and stepped into the thick darkness surrounding my “yes.” Do you know what I found once I did?

His extraordinary “yes” on the other side, brilliant light radiating deeply into my heart and bathing my soul in peace. Why? Because God was there. God is there, and God wants me to be where he is.

Friends, I don’t want to live my life beneath a cloudless sky if it means missing the beauty of a trust-filled walk with the Lover of my soul. I don’t want sunny skies if it means I cannot have the thickness of God’s presence surrounding me. I don’t ask for the darkness; I much prefer sacred revelation without it. But I’ve walked with God long enough to know when he’s inviting me to a deeper level of trust. This is one of those seasons. Accordingly, I have stepped beyond the veil in recent days, and I have seen with my own eyes and felt deeply within my soul what it is to move beyond my fears and to walk with faith as my anchor.

Have I crossed the Red Sea? Not yet, but I’ve dipped my toes into the waters of anticipation, and I’m ready to make that journey through on dry ground.

This is faith from the inside-out, all the way through to Canaan. God is there. He is my next, and he is my peace . . . for the journey. I can’t wait to read the next chapter in this crazy book called “My Life.” Thank you for joining me on the road.

PS:The winner of a surprise gift from Lisa Dixon is Cindy from Letters From Midlife.

Leave a comment today for a chance to win a copy of Leah’s new study, HeBrews: a Better Blend. It is a fascinating, challenging dig into the life of faith. I hope you’ll take advantage of this soul-stretching resource!

Also, have you heard about my summer-combo book deal? You can secure copies of Peace for the Journey and Beyond the Scars for $20 (includes shipping – USA orders only). I’ll be happy to sign them for you and get them in the mail this week (sent media mail). You may order through paypal using the link below or by contacting me directly by clicking here.

 

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